It’s become de rigeur for companies to have a Facebook page or Twitter feed. But it’s far less common for them to permit their employees – potentially their greatest brand ambassadors – to engage on behalf of the company on blogs or social media. After all, executives fear, won’t they end up with rogue employees (see Domino’s Pizza) who damage their reputation?
But Cheryl and Mark Burgess, authors of the new The Social Employee: How Great Companies Make Social Media Work, think that’s a wasted opportunity. “The more your employees can be thought of as the go-to people in their areas of expertise, the more likely prospects will come to your brand first when seeking solutions,” says Cheryl Burgess. Indeed, it turns out that involving your employees in social media may, in fact, be the best way to prevent online disasters.
“The Domino’s example is a useful starting-off point because it illustrates precisely what going social is not about,” she says. “Although the Domino’s employees were at work and using social media, they were neither acting on behalf of the brand nor engaging through the brand’s social channels. Their actions were—and I’m sure Domino’s hopes everyone understands this—completely their own.
“Incidents such as these are actually why companies should be starting social conversations within their walls,” she says. “Going social is a chance to educate your employees; to talk about proper conduct, whether personal or on behalf of the company; and to discuss the impact even a single individual’s actions can have online. [It] makes the Domino’s scenario less likely, not more, because it gets workers talking, putting everything on the table and leaving no ambiguity in regards to personal conduct. It’s a win-win for both employee and brand.”
So what’s the best way to develop a social culture at your company? First, develop clear guidelines. Burgess urges businesses to follow the lead of IBM, where Ethan McCarty, Director of Social Strategy and Programs, asked employees to help develop social guidelines through a shared wiki. “Beginning the social conversation with your employees and working with them to establish a set of social guidelines will minimize the kinds of mistakes your brand makes and the frequency with which you make them,” says Burgess. (Hundreds of other companies have since adopted modified versions of IBM’s policy.)
Second, understand that mistakes will occur (as distinct from malicious pranks, like those of the Domino’s employees). “It doesn’t matter what it is you’re doing in life, the first few times you try something, you’re not going to get it perfectly right,” says Burgess. “No ones does. But that’s okay. Going social means providing a safe environment for those mistakes.”
Third, recognize that the ROI may not be immediately apparent. “In many ways, establishing a social media presence is a long-term strategy designed to bolster brand eminence and credibility in the digital bazaar,” she says. “You have to earn your way onto peoples’ streams…if you’re not engaging your community members in any useful way, it doesn’t matter how well-designed the rest of your marketing strategy is—nobody is going to be paying attention to you.”
Fourth, it’s important for top executives to serve as social role models for their employees, who “need to see how going social works so they can understand why they should do it,” she says. “Surveys have shown that employees are more likely to engage in social media on behalf of their companies if they see their superiors (managers or executives) engaging as well.” An important part of that is keeping the dialogue open. “Make sure your employees know who to go to if they have any questions,” she says. “Reward positive social media outcomes, and share those results with your other employees so that they can use these examples as models for their own interactions. Internal blogs or periodic newsletters specifically addressing the victories, concerns, and questions is a great way to keep the conversation transparent and moving forward.”
Is your company building a social culture? How have you done it – and what’s been the greatest opportunity or challenge?
This article first appeared at Forbes.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.